Three Ethics Takeaways From ONA Conference

Alberto Cairo
Alberto Cairo of the University of Miami says ethics have not kept pace with data visualization techniques. (Stephen Rynkiewicz photo)

By David Craig

The Online News Association annual conference, which I attended September 24-27 in Chicago, always provides great updates on trends and issues in digital journalism. But it’s also a great place to hear about ethical challenges, both new and continuing.

Ethical issues were the focus of three sessions, including a challenge session in which audience members had to react quickly to ethical scenarios on topics such as use of user-generated content. But ethics also came up in sessions that were primarily about other topics.

Here are three ethics takeaways from the conference:

1. Content that disappears will create new ethical challenges. Amy Webb, founder of Webbmedia Group, delivered her annual talk on “10 Tech Trends for Journalists.” One of them was “ephemeral content,” an increasingly popular kind of social media communication.

Webb said Snapchat, an app developed to share photos that’s popular with young people, provided a way to send private content that users might not want to stay around, but “it’s also a way to clear up our cluttered social streams.” She said other companies are providing messaging services with content that disappears, appears anonymously or is even encrypted. She predicted that most messaging apps will have some kind of means of making content ephemeral in the next 24 months.

Ephemeral content is relevant to journalism because some news organizations including The Washington Post are experimenting with it. But Webb pointed to an ethical difficulty: “Ephemeral content can be used for publishing news. But it can’t be corrected, because no record is left.”

This kind of communication raises questions of accountability for the accuracy of content because once it’s gone, there’s no way to amend a false message or even verify what the message said.

“Talk internally about the implications,” Webb suggested to news organizations.

Even for journalists who don’t use this kind of content, the discussion points to ongoing questions about what it means to ethically handle incorrect content in social media messages.

2. Algorithms shape the truth that people learn about the world and point to new ethical obligations for journalists. Kelly McBride, vice president for academic programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and Nick Diakopoulos, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and an expert in computational journalism, presented a session titled “Algorithms are the New Gatekeepers.”

McBride said algorithms, because they shape how news is distributed and to whom, have a powerful influence on what gets attention in the marketplace of ideas. As one of the presentation slides showed, they also affect a huge number of other areas of life including search rankings, online recommendations, advertising and relationships.

Diakopoulos talked about the power of algorithms in influencing the information we receive because of their ability to prioritize, classify, associate and filter it. He argued that the power they carry suggests new responsibilities – and opportunities – for journalists in reporting because they can help hold algorithms accountable. Stories might address issues including discrimination, mistakes that deny service, censorship, illegal activity or false predictions.

This kind of reporting isn’t easy. He pointed to several possible approaches to “auditing” algorithms – reviews of computer code, surveys of users about their experience, analysis of input and output, having users report data and (with ethical problems he acknowledged) impersonating users with programs.

Despite the difficulties, the social and economic impact of algorithms make it important for journalists to try new ways of reporting.

3. The power and availability of data visualization tools call for increasing attention to the ethics of visualization messages. Alberto Cairo, a professor at the University of Miami who teaches on informational graphics and data visualization, gave a session called “The Journalist, the Artist and the Engineer: The Ethics of Data Visualization.”

Cairo argued that the core goal of journalism ethics is to improve the public’s understanding of issues “relevant for their conducting good lives” while minimizing any potential harm. He said tools to create interactive charts, maps and other informational graphics are becoming more popular and widely available but that ethics is not keeping pace. He said that helping the public understand what good, ethical visualizations look like can help to better society and avoid the impact of misleading messages.

Even though great data visualizations are beautiful as well as functional, Cairo said, they must hold to a high standard of truthfulness that doesn’t oversimplify or distort the information being represented. Using the example of a graphic from the National Cable Television Association, he talked about going from showing things that are true but may leave out important information to showing a picture that’s more complicated but also truer and more accurate.

Cairo urged the audience not to hide complexity from the public or point to patterns that really aren’t there. In doing so, he is rightly pointing to a standard of care in visualization that is as high as the standards used in good investigative writing.

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About David Craig

Professor and associate dean, Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Oklahoma. I teach and write about journalism ethics.

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